PICASSO AT THE LAPIN AGILE, Briar Street Theatre. Three years after its premiere at Steppenwolf Theatre, Steve Martin’s one-act returns to Chicago in a somewhat revised commercial version, having wowed some audiences and critics on the coasts. Depicting a fateful but fictitious turn-of-the-century encounter between the young Pablo Picasso and an equally young patent clerk named Albert Einstein, the script remains a scattershot mix of jokes (some lame, some witty) and philosophizing (some of it thoughtful, most of it pretentious) suggested by the meeting of these two minds. Martin’s rewrites make the play seem somewhat more solid, but his treatment is still essentially superficial and gimmicky, climaxing not with any insight earned from the geniuses’ interaction but with the appearance of a messenger from the future–young Elvis, who joins the two in a toast to the coming “age of regret.”

Essentially a padded TV skit, Picasso is directed by Randall Arney, who presided over the work’s debut in 1993 (when he was Steppenwolf’s artistic director), a production blessed by Tim Hopper’s moody, predatory Picasso. Here Robert Kahn is closer to the right age but comes off as too clean-cut–a mischievous frat rat, not an arrogant genius. The usually fine Jim Ortlieb is overly mannered as Einstein, making the resulting friction between Einstein and Picasso all too obviously an author’s conceit. Mildy amusing but hardly illuminating, Picasso at the Lapin Agile owes its success more to audience preconceptions of its celebrity playwright than to the work itself.

–Albert Williams